By David Espo
WASHINGTON: Republicans blistered Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Wednesday over the nation’s controversial health-care law, bluntly challenging her honesty, pushing for her resignation and demanding unsuccessfully she concede that President Barack Obama deliberately misled the public about his signature domestic program.
“We’re not in it to just give you a rough time. We’re in it to try and hopefully get it right,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, at a hearing where Republicans — all of whom had voted against the Affordable Care Act —focused on the program’s flawed sign-up website as well as costs, policy cancellations, security concerns and other issues.
During two hours in the Senate Finance Committee witness chair, Sebelius parried some thrusts and listened impassively to others. Treated more gently by Democrats than Republicans, she said at one point: “Clearly the opposition is still quite ferocious, and I’m just hoping that people understand what their options are, what their benefits could be and what their opportunities are.”
She offered few if any concessions about a program she pointedly observed “passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the president and upheld by the Supreme Court.”
Nor did she provide much in the way of new information about the launch of a website that she has conceded was deeply flawed. She disclosed that the so-called punch list for repairs had included “a couple of hundred functional fixes” at the time the administration launched its urgent rescue mission last month.
Even now, she said, “We’re not where we need to be.”
She added that the Web portal now is handling large volumes of material with fewer errors. However, as she testified, the website, www.healthcare.gov, was running sluggishly, with some users encountering difficulty and others receiving error messages.
At a Dallas synagogue Wednesday, Obama assured volunteers that their efforts to sign people up for coverage would be well worth the trouble. “As challenging as this may seem sometimes, as frustrating as HealthCare.gov may be sometimes, we are going to get this done,” Obama said.
Just before leaving Washington, Obama met with 16 Democratic senators facing re-election in 2014 to discuss the troubled website rollout. They pressed him to extend the March 31 enrollment deadline, but White House press secretary Jay Carney rejected the idea.
Republican criticism and questions have turned in recent days into other areas, some blending policy and politics.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, one of Sebelius’ most aggressive questioners, read aloud from a page of the White House website that says: “If you like your plan, you can keep it and you don’t have to change a thing due to the health-care law.”
Turning to Sebelius, he said: “Well, we know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately lying to the American people is not. I’d just like to ask you a simple true-or-false question. Is that statement on the White House website true or is it false?” Sebelius said, “Sir, I think the statement is that. ...” before Cornyn cut her off.
“Is it true or is it false, Madame Secretary?” he asked.
She said “a vast majority” of people who are insured through their jobs would keep their plans and “a majority” of the 11 million in the individual market will keep plans with stronger coverage while “others will have to choose if they have to choose if they have a brand new plan and not a grandfathered — have to choose of a plan that they no longer get medically underwritten. ...”
Cornyn responded, “I will just ask that the record ... note that you have refused to answer my question whether it’s true or false.”
At the heart of his questioning was the recent flood of millions of cancellation notices that insurance companies have sent to individual policyholders, despite assurances dating to 2009 by the president that people would be able to keep their coverage if they liked it.
Several other Republicans also referred to the cancellations when their turn came to question Sebelius.